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Fixing the Bowl System

As I sit here in the midst of yet another over-hyped, under delivering college bowl season, I’d like to focus on a postseason issue that often takes a backseat to the “playoff vs BCS” debate – how do we make the entire college bowl system more enjoyable?

Not to sound like an old fuddy duddy – but when I was growing up, the college bowl system was a glorious week and a half of football that culminated with what used to be the best day of the year, New Year’s Day.  Of course, that was back when it was permissible to play more than one bowl game at a time, and different networks even competed for the rights.  There were also built in rivalries that made the games exciting, the games were based on when fans could travel instead of when it was good for television ratings, and most importantly, you played for a final ranking or pride – which meant that games outside national championship game actually mattered.

Now, the bowl system is a mess.  Nobody really cares about any games outside of the BCS Title Game and going to a bowl game is no longer a special occurence, since 50% of all teams in college football are “rewarded” with a bowl game.   So how do we fix it?  Here are a few suggestions.

1. Condense the Bowl Season

I know that the popular argument is to just restrict the number of  bowl games.  But given how much money is at stake for the bowl committee, the host city, and the conferences playing in them, that’s just not going to happen.  Maybe there will be some natural contraction of bowls that don’t make money, but we’re not going back to an 18 bowl system like we had in 1991.  Instead, let’s shorten the bowl season.  Right now, the bowl season basically starts 2 weeks after the regular season final games have been played and extends until a week after New Year’s.  That’s almost 3 1/2 weeks of bowl season.  That’s too long for any fan to pay attention.  The minor bowls are barely a blip on anyone’s radar as it is, playing them on December 19th means even less people are watching. The same goes for any bowl game after New Year’s Day – unless its the BCS Title game, nobody cares, or has time to watch. The bowl season should start on December 23rd and other than the BCS Title Game go until January 2nd.  Sure it’s a short span of time to cram in a bunch of games, but college football fans are notorious for spending hours in front of the TV watching, why wouldn’t they do that for bowl games too?

2. Create Continuity in the System

One of the reasons nobody pays attention to the bowls any more is because the names keep changing.  Or more accurately, the sponsors keep changing.  If you want to sponsor a bowl, make a 5 year commitment.  That way I won’t be confused when the Big Ten plays in the Dallas Football Classic Bowl in one year and then the TicketCity Bowl next year.  Name changes are inevitable, but let’s at least try and create some long term brand value.  Along those same lines, let’s keep conferences tied to the same games for extended periods of time – and do our best to keep those tie-ins alive every year.  That used to be the norm, but it seems like every year there is a fill-in for a BCS game, or a new conference tie in for the Gator Bowl.  If you want to build excitement for bowls, you have to create year to year rivalries that allow teams and conferences to build up animosity.  The Big Ten and SEC have some of that with their tie-ins for the Capitol One Bowl, Outback Bowl and Gator Bowl, but there needs to be more of this.  Fans should know that just like the Rose Bowl is the Big Ten vs the Pac 12, the Holiday Bowl is the Big 12 vs. the Pac 12 and the Cotton Bowl is the Big 12 vs the SEC.  These rivalries used to be played up, now they are just an afterthought.

3. Flashback to New Year’s Day 1991 Part 1

In 1991 there were 18 bowl games – 8 of which were played on New Year’s Day.  That meant for college football fanatics like myself, you could kickoff your day with the Hall of Fame Bowl 11 AM, and have back to back games going until 11 PM at night, when the Orange and Sugar Bowls were ending.  12 hours of football, 8 great matchups, and plenty of channel flipping.  It made for an incredible day, with multiple television setups and competing games adding to the fun.  On New Year’s Day 2010, of the 34(!) bowls, a whopping 5 were played on New Year’s Day.  Last year, the addition of another bowl game gave us 6 bowl matchups on New Year’s Day, a step in the right direction in terms of quantity, but not quality.  Several of the bowls were sub-par matchups that included a 7-5 Michigan vs 8-4 Mississippi State and a 7-5 Northwestern vs a 7-5 Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.   Compare that to 1991, where the only games slotted on New Year’s Day were marquee matchups. New Year’s Day should be reserved for the best games between the best teams.  If your bowl puts the #6 Big Ten Team vs. the #7 SEC team, please enjoy December 30th.

4. Flashback to New Year’s Day 1991 Part II

The other reason the bowls were more fun to watch in 1991 is that not only were the marquee games reserved for January 1, but they were actually played on January 1!  Ever since ESPN has taken over the bowl system (33 of 35 bowls will be broadcast by ESPN this year), they’ve taken all of the competition out of things by spreading out the games over several days.  Instead of a 4 PM kickoff on New Year’s Day of both the Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, followed immediately by the Sugar and Orange Bowls, each game has its own timeslot.   Each of the 4 marquee bowls is the only bowl being played at that time.  While that’s great for attracting more viewers, it also means that if the game isn’t that competitive, I’m switching to something totally different.  The NHL has wisely seized upon this with the NHL Winter Classic – now fans have an option if the Rose Bowl is a blowout. Part of the fun of New Year’s Day is that it was like the Super Bowl of college football – an all day party of games that kept you watching even if you didn’t have a dog in the fight.   The 1991 Sugar Bowl matchup between Tennessee and Virginia probably wasn’t must-see TV for me, but since it was on New Year’s Day, I tuned in.   I happen to be a Michigan fan, so I’ll absolutely tune in for the Sugar Bowl on January 3rd this year, but the Orange Bowl battle between Clemson and West Virginia will probably only garner as much interest from me as your standard Saturday night ESPN SEC game.  I may watch, but I’m not planning my night around it.  And I think most fans feel the same way.  Instead of spreading the bowls out, why not build excitement for the one day of the year where everybody can watch?  You may lose some “viewers” due to channel flipping, but you won’t lose excitement or interest over the bowl games.  Plus, now that we live in a Twitter world, if something exciting is happening in your game, fans will know to tune in.

5. Flashback to 1991 Part III

One of the original reasons behind the entire bowl system was to create tourism for certain places around holiday time.  Fans could pick their Christmas and New Year’s destinations based on where their favorite team was playing, and in most cases, enjoy a vacation somewhere warm like California or Florida – a great perk for the northern schools.  Unfortunately, with the modification of the bowl schedule has scrapped all of that for many fans.  With 5 bowl games being played on January 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 8th, you have several games that are very difficult for fans to travel to because of work/school scheduling.  Parents just can’t pull their kids out of school these days just because the college team is playing on the Wednesday after New Year’s.  Likewise, most people don’t have that flexibility of work to miss an extra couple of days to start the New Year.  And the same goes for six games played before December 24th – nobody can travel the week before Christmas or after New Year’s because they have other responsibilities. Yet bowl officials and schools can’t understand why they have trouble selling out their allotment of tickets.  The solution is simple – get back to the basics.  Plan your bowls around when it is convenient for fans to travel and make the experience user friendly.  I guarantee the host cities would benefit from more fans who stick around for a longer period of time, instead of those who fly in the day before (or morning of the game) and fly out the next day.  Let the game be a holiday destination, like it was meant to be.

6. Traditional Bowl Matchups

I know I started this post saying that I wasn’t interested in addressing the BCS/Playoff argument.  I lied. Sort of.  I’m not going to advocate for a playoff system to choose a champion, or even a +1 BCS scenario.  Instead, let’s take a step backward, and revert back to the way we used to choose a National Champion – with voting.  In truth, its not that different than what we have now.  The BCS just gives a game between #1 and #2 that is decided by the voters, and it guarantees that teams that don’t finish the regular season #1 or #2 have no shot at the title.  Therefore, we’re told that the only bowl game that matters is the BCS Title Game.  That’s unfair to the other bowls, and is frankly, shortsighted.

Let’s say that we reverted to the modified old bowl tie-ins, with the SEC Champ  in the Sugar Bowl, the ACC and Big East Champs in the Orange Bowl, the Big 12 Champ in the Fiesta Bowl, and the Big 10 and Pac 12 Champs in the Rose Bowl.  Both the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls would have an at-large selection too.  The major conferences in the major bowls, with no BCS BS to decide who gets to play where.  The 2011 version would look something like this (notice its not that different).

Rose Bowl – #8 Wisconsin vs. #5 Oregon

Orange Bowl – #15 Clemson vs #22 West Virginia

Fiesta Bowl – #3 Oklahoma State vs at-large

Sugar Bowl – #1 LSU vs at-large

The at-larges would clearly be #4 Stanford and #2 Alabama – so you might get the same matchups in the Sugar Bowl (Alabama vs LSU) and the Fiesta Bowl (Stanford vs Oklahoma State) anyways.  Or, you could end up with LSU playing Stanford and Oklahoma State vs Alabama.  In either instance, if LSU wins, they are the clear #1 team and would win the National Championship.  But let’s say we take Scenario B and LSU loses to Stanford and Oklahoma State trounces Alabama.  Suddenly Oklahoma State has a strong claim to the title and we’ve made the Fiesta Bowl a lot more compelling.

Sure, the Orange Bowl is still a mediocre matchup, but the other offshoot of this is that since we’re not so focused on just #1 vs. #2, the Rose Bowl regains some of its luster.  And in years where there are unbeatens or one loss teams from more than 2 conferences, every major bowl game might be a showcase for a team trying to lay its claim to the national championship.  And without so much focus on #1 vs. #2, teams will again take pride in trying to finish as a high as they can.  As it stands now, there’s no difference between finishing #3 or #14 in the minds of most fans/teams.  That didn’t used to be the case.

The trade off is that we won’t guarantee that #1 will play #2, but its not like the BCS is the perfect system it supposedly is.  I’d be happy with scrapping the BCS if it meant that the other bowls actually mattered again.  Wouldn’t it be great to spend New Year’s Day monitoring all of the major bowls and wondering whose style points would sway the voters?

I’m not naive enough to think that all of this, or frankly any of this, will happen.  But there was a time when college bowl games were exciting, and in some cases were must see TV.  There was a time when bowl games were profitable and teams played in full stadiums with thousands of fans making the trip to see the game.  And there was a time where I could spend my New Year’s Day with 3 TV’s lined up next to each other, enjoying 8 or 9 games from 11 AM to 11 PM.   I’ll still enjoy the 6 games I get to watch today, but I’ll be disappointed knowing how great this day used to be and with a few tweaks, still could be.